The history of professional soccer in Jacksonville dates back nearly 30 years to the founding of the Jacksonville Tea Men in 1980, playing what was then the Gator Bowl. Despite strong popularity within the market and on-the-field successful, the Tea Men were gone after less than half a decade.
Today, as we near the 30-year anniversary of the Tea Men’s arrival to North East Florida, a club that started out on a similar course, with similar engagement, finds itself hoping it won’t also be a forgotten tale, a footnote in the story of another soccer club’s success in Jacksonville 30 years from now.
The Jacksonville Armada, founded in 2013, made it’s NASL debut in front of over 16,000 people at EverBank Field in 2015, an NASL modern-era record and a promising kick-off to what many believed would be a successful long-term run for the Beautiful Game in the Bold City.
“It was an amazing start,” said Armada President Nathan Walter, who has been with the team since Day 1 and sat down with the Jacksonville Soccer Journal recently to discuss the past and future of the club. “We capitalized off a new beginning and everybody likes something new, especially here in Jacksonville. We had an amazing turnout — like you said, we had over 16,000 people. … What happened was we let them down, though, on the soccer side. The Jacksonville market weren’t with us unfortunately, we see that with the NFL team here in Jacksonville — when they’re winning, people are there; when they’re not winning, it doesn’t turn out the way you want it.
“That first year was very unfortunate because we really had great momentum and movement within Jacksonville, and something that keeps us relevant today. I’m amazed with this transition how relevant the Armada still is in the market, and that’s something to be proud of as well. But we let them down on the soccer side.”
The Armada struggled to create continuity, both within the front office and on the field. The club came out swinging in the NASL, not shying away from spending and attempting to create a winning product right off the bat, but with that came problems on the field and four different coaching staffs within the first four seasons. Couple that in with a less-than-ideal stadium situation and the imperfect business opportunities that came with it, Mark Frisch, the founding owner of the club, was forced to sell the club to the NASL in early 2017.
“From a soccer standpoint it started to turn itself around. From the business standpoint, it went the opposite way. We never had both working at the same time,” Walter said. “The business side would be doing really well but the soccer side wasn’t. But then we had it turn around a little bit, the soccer side was doing well and the business side just declined, and didn’t help with us losing the local ownership; the atmosphere at the baseball grounds was really, really difficult. When you’re not winning and people aren’t turning up, then everything becomes an issue — the atmosphere becomes an issue; it’s not a soccer-specific stadium, you can’t generate the correct revenues you need to be a self-sustainable club.”
Later that summer, Florida-based businessman Robert Palmer bought the club from the league. While on the outside it doesn’t look like much has changed within the walls of the Armada, inside Palmer has brought a breath of fresh air and change in business direction that Walter expects will put the club in a better position than it’s been in before.
“Robert’s a very responsible business man and a lot of people get into this as a hobby to just throw money at it and see what happens,” he said. “He’s very strategic in how he operates, and what I’ve enjoyed about that is there are no emotional decisions, everything is business-like and that has been able to stabilize us and understand how to navigate these waters.”
Two ownership groups on and nearly six years later, the Armada needed to hit the re-set button, says Walter, take a step back, and look at what they need to do to better attack the situation when they’re ready to fully jump back in.
“The situation we’re currently in within Jacksonville, there’s no soccer-specific stadium, there’s no stadium that houses great hospitality, no great experiences for the fans, we can’t monetize on anything, so there’s no stable situation for us,” he said. “So quite honestly, instead of sticking another three, four, five million dollars down a drain we’ve been able to look at it. We’ll bring down operations, we’ll understand where the US soccer landscape is for us now, and let’s look to put those dollars into something different down the road in the future for what makes us stable.”
Walter said the most important thing for the club right now is investing in its infrastructure, and took a minute to also defend Palmer for his patience and commitment through this transitional period. Still only in his late-30s, Palmer is in it for the long-haul and wants to see long-term success for the Armada under his watch.
“He has 40 years he wants to be a part of this, it’s not for Robert where it’s just a short-term thing and all of a sudden it’s gone,” Walter said. “He wants a legacy here, so he’s in it for the long-term. If it has to take a couple of years for us to work it all out then that’s what we’ll do, but we know we’re in the market and we’re comfortable in the market.”
This season, the Armada returned with a U23 squad to compete again in the NPSL, the 4th Division in U.S. Soccer pyramid. The team wrapped up it’s five-game home schedule for 2019 back on June 8, and while the Armada are on pace to make the Sunshine Conference playoffs, when and where the next competitive home match will be for the Armada remains up in the air.
Where the Armada hope to be one day is in its own soccer-specific stadium, which Walter says is very much in the works and a main focus of his right now, and while Walter was point blank in saying he doesn’t know what the future of the Armada holds beyond this NPSL season, he says much of it will be centered around the stadium and what the club accomplishes on that front.
“In regards to next year, I’ll be completely straight, we’re not sure yet,” he said. “We’re not sure what that looks like, we still have six months of this year left and as we know anything can happen and things can move. But what I can say is that until a stadium is in place, we’re not ready to take the next step, whatever that next step may be. The stadium is crucial for us to make the next step up — for one, the give the fans what they deserve, and experience like that; two, local companies, sponsorships, our partners deserve stuff like that, they deserve to experience hospitality and enjoy and so on.”
Walter did hint at the stadium location being somewhere downtown, noting that the downtown experience — “it’s a day out, they can get out, they can go downtown and have lunch at restaurants, go tailgating, go to the game, and then go have dinner after or a drink after and then leave” — is something that’s very huge to him.
Wherever that stadium does end up, the Armada are set on committing themselves to Jacksonville for the long-term. It’s an important piece for both Walter and the club.
“For me it’s all about the community, and I think the one thing that gets lost in American sports is that sports is part of a community, and I think that clubs in Europe and South America have really, really tied themselves into the community. There’s only a few clubs I believe in the United States have done that, and I would love the Armada to be a part of that, to really lay their roots in and be an advocate of the community. That’s important to us,” he said.
Walter admitted that the club is sailing through “dark times” right now, but his confidence for the future of the Armada remains as high as ever.
He often thinks back about the Armada’s final home game in the NASL, against the New York Cosmos in 2017. He keeps the memories of that day close to heart and uses it to stay committed to bringing the club back to the top.
“Going back to that fan piece and the community piece, that last game in the NASL season against the New York Cosmos we had 7,500 people at UNF and the atmosphere was fantastic, it was fun, it was enjoyable, and it’s what I hold on to during these dark days because I know there’s a fanbase still and I know that the people will galvanize when something’s there and we’re ready to have these guys experience a soccer-specific stadium — an experience that they deserve,” he said.
“And that’s the piece that you hold on to because you know the fanbase is here and we know that if we give them the right product then it’s going to flourish.”